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Bush's Voter Strategy Seems Too Complex

THE Republican convention was very important for George Bush's political recovery, a task made more difficult by Bill Clinton's successes. The Bush record is not good on many issues that folks up and down your street worry about: jobs, health-care costs, schools, urban unrest. Questions have been raised about his capacity to lead or even identify when to lead and for what purpose. The president accentuated the crucial role of the convention by refusing, almost Dukakis-like, to respond to the drumbeat of partisan attack prior to the meeting in Houston.

Mr. Bush's strategy, as it unfolded last week, seems as complex as the problems it is designed to solve. The president had to be accepted by the party. His nomination was certain, but there was doubt about how enthusiastic Republicans were about it. The speeches by Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan resolved those doubts in favor of Bush. The emphasis on family values sealed it for him. And by the final night, the Astrodome was his.

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Next he had to win back independents and Reagan Democrats. This meant stitching Mr. Clinton into the tapestry of recent Democratic presidential campaigns. Clinton worked hard in New York to separate himself from past losers. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's keynote speech associated Clinton with the tax-and-spend Democratic presidential candidates and Congress. Doubt was also sown about Clinton's capability to be commander in chief.

Trickiest of all for the president was the challenge of meeting the demand for change. In one poll, 92 percent of the respondents thought "real change" was needed; only 15 percent judged that President Bush would bring about that change. The current mood for change crosses party lines, as do misgivings that Bush can make the difference. George Bush, after all, is not exactly a new face in Washington.

THUS, how does one become an agent of change - against one's own record? Bush gave it the old college try. There was no more consistent theme in Houston than this: Vote for change by voting against Congress. Had it not been for those nasty Democrats, the kind of change favored by Americans would have already taken place. But wait a minute: Isn't it likely that the Democrats will return as majorities in both houses?

The answer was contained in Bush's acceptance speech. He will take his as-yet-unenacted, somewhat embellished program to the people, win, and then have a mandate from the voters for change. The new Congress will acknowledge the president's mandate and pass his program, if he acts fast.

Why didn't this happen after the 1988 election? Because that election wasn't about real issues. Nobody wanted change then. There was no mandate. Further, the president was occupied with world change - facilitating it, managing the consequences, protecting US interests, often against Democratic opposition.

If the president makes this strategy work, he will have pulled off one of the great political triumphs of this century. There is a hitch, however. Congress, as such, is not on the ballot. Senate and House elections are state and local affairs. They are notoriously difficult to manage and influence nationally. Yet the president wants to try with this message: To get the change you want, vote for me and throw out the entrenched congressional Democrats.

Complicating these instructions for voters is the fact that many incumbents aren't seeking reelection. How do you support the president, by his rationale, if there is no incumbent in your district, and both candidates are running against Congress? Clinton's formula, however, doesn't require ornate voting pretenses. It says simply: Vote for me and you will get change.

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The Republican convention was as much a success as the president could hope for - more so than pundits predicted. Bush rallied the party and energized himself. He enthused Republican congressional candidates, who badly needed a boost. He elaborated an intricate strategy for reelection. How he will govern should he win remains as much a puzzle as how the Democrats will recover from this golden opportunity to recapture the White House should they lose.

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